by Guy Lerner

Is the PC industry slowing down?

Yes, I’m serious. Crazy as it may seem, either it’s my warped imagination, or the speed of innovation we’ve become accustomed to in the Wintel world is faltering. I’ll need to quantify this question, of course, because innovation as I’ve defined it is not one immovable monolith. Many parts of the puzzle are indeed coming together at lightening pace, but others don’t seem to have budged for years.

Windows ninety-something
The most glaring example of my disillusionment is Windows itself. Three years ago, Windows 95 signaled the end of an era that saw computing power quadruple in as many years. Today, Windows 98 is, for all intents and purposes, a refined edition of Windows 95, with the commonplace Internet interface that’s been around for nearly a year (Internet Explorer’s Active Desktop, in case I lost you).

What am I saying? Well, since computing power hasn’t slowed down on the hardware side (Pentium II was a typo back in 95, as was USB), why has the steadfast OS shifted sideways rather than up ways?

The hockey stick stickler
If you had to draw a progress graph for the Wintel hierarchy, starting with DOS and the venerable 286 and ending with Windows 98 and the mighty Pentium II-400, you could almost trace the hockey stick-like profile of my argument. Progress cannot look skyward forever, and at some point, it has to flatten to a plateau before the ‘next big thing’ comes along. I fear we’ve reached the edge of that plateau, and the next year or so will see the industry consolidating in relative stability until that ‘next big thing’ does come along.

The other side to this argument is that we’re nowhere near the plateau, but merely at a cliff’s edge between the mechanical rocket of the hardware plant and the stagnant imagination of the software factory. In simple terms, you could say hardware advances have overshot the ability of the human-minded software industry to keep pace with the power it’s been given.

Worms and apples
Consider this analogy. Hardware is the apple, software is the worm. The worm is very hungry, and eats through one apple with relative ease. But the apple tree (the hardware industry) is healthy, and grows two apples for the one that’s been eaten. The worm makes easy prey of its new bounty, but by now the tree has grown four apples for the two that have been eaten (notice how Moore’s law increases hardware capacity exponentially). The worm is hungry still, but has only gone through two more apples by the time the tree has grown eight more.

And so the story goes … no matter how hungry the worm, the tree will keep on growing apples, and it’s up to the worm to keep up with the tree. No doubt the worm will finish off all the apples, but there is a point where the number of available apples far surpasses the worm’s appetite.

Perhaps we’re at that point. The signs are certainly there; hardware power is at an all-time high, but software power is only incrementally edging up the ladder. As the worm feeds, software advances are introduced, but the sheer processing power at our disposal (the sheer number of apples on the tree) means the worm will take some time to eat all the apples and signal a new age of computing utopia.

The Microsoft worm
You could turn this argument on its head and say that the worm will never catch up to the tree, simply because the tree is bigger than the worm, and is not constrained by ‘worm-like’ (read ‘human-like’) obstacles (hunger and creativity). You could also say there were always more apples than the worm could handle, and there always will be.

I’ll add a twist to this variation by saying there were once more worms on the tree, and since the Microsoft worm began feeding on the other worms as well as on apples, its ability to keep up with the tree was seriously jeopardised.

Windows 98 will do many things, but none more important than to show us just how much we, as PC users, depend on Microsoft for innovation. Since Windows successfully tied up the home PC OS market and then proceeded to tie up the word processing market and the database market and the spreadsheet market and now the multimedia market and the entertainment market (I can go on if you like), PC innovation became equivalent to Microsoft innovation.

Which brings me back to the point of Windows 98, and the bigger picture of the PC industry. If Windows 3.x to Windows 95 was a giant leap for man, Windows 95 to Windows 98 is a giant leap for flea kind. Hardcore Microsoft pundits will point to animated menus, on-the-fly driver support and some 3000 bug fixes as sure signs of progress. I say Microsoft should have released Windows 95 OSR2.2 and spared us the blushes until NT 5 again tries to recapture our techno-hungry imaginations.

A ‘bigger’ thing
Then there’s the issue of the ‘next big thing’. The identity of this ‘thing’ is currently the 64-million dollar question in an industry hardly short of dollars. I have two takes (hey, I’m writing this article so I’m allowed) on the outcome, but only one real conviction.

First, the chances of a ‘next big thing’ until the US government nukes Microsoft are slim to none. If Microsoft dies, the industry will have to look to a new leader (or conglomeration of leaders) for pace-setting trends and products that will radically change our lives (the definition of a ‘next big thing’ after all). This scenario is hardly likely, but I’ve thrown it in for good measure for the millions of readers who pray it will be so.

What we’ll probably see is the ‘bigger’ thing, when the US government fails to topple Microsoft and instead becomes a fully-owned subsidiary of the company. Microsoft will be free to plunder (‘innovate’ in Microsoft-speak), and we’ll see it’s own version of progress in action (which is progress nonetheless, I suppose).

There’s a pain in my Windows
The latter scenario may frighten the anti-Microsoft lobby to the point of bankruptcy, but I for one don’t fear it for a minute. We all know that Windows is the platform of choice for most, and that a Microsoft-run handle on the industry can only mean that any and all applications we foster will be designed exclusively for the Windows-savvy PC. That means no more big-headed companies making ‘better’ software that runs on ‘all’ platforms but doesn’t run that well on any. It means no more government-led witch-hunts that delay rather than slow down the inevitable. And it means we don’t have to wait three years to be told the ‘next big thing’ is only three years away. In the meantime …

I recently visited the annual South African Computer Faire and Bexa in Johannesburg, the supposed highlight of the IT industry in the country each year. Aside from an enormously expensive Microsoft stand, it seems the industry has ignored its own show and sat on the sidelines while Bill’s gang strutted its stuff. Windows 98 was everywhere (judging by the GPFs that lit up the show), but IBM, Novell, Apple, Silicon Graphics and all the other worms that Microsoft’s already eaten and digested weren’t there for the snigger. You only had to visit the one stand that mattered to see how far we’ve come.

Not that far at all.